Summer jet-setters turned Sardinia into a virus hot spot

By Jason Horowitz

The allure of the turquoise waters, extravagant villas and exclusive dance clubs of the Emerald Coast of Sardinia proved stronger than ever in August, as vacationers hungry for virus-free air poured in from other capitals of the international party circuit, like the Spanish island of Ibiza and Mykonos in the Aegean Sea, joining Italian tourists hungry for virus-free air.

They joined Italian vacationers Silvio Berlusconi, the mogul who dominated Italian politics for a quarter-century and whose Sardinian refuge is worthy of a Roman emperor; and his businessman friend Flavio Briatore, an acquaintance of President Donald Trump, biological father to Heidi Klum’s first child and owner of the island’s unapologetically hedonistic club Billionaire.

Now Berlusconi, 83, lies in a Milan hospital with pneumonia after contracting the coronavirus. Briatore, who dropped in to pay him a visit at his Sardinian estate and who had publicly complained about what he said was an overreaction by the government to the pandemic, is quarantined in Milan with COVID-19, too.

It is not clear when or how Berlusconi or Briatore were infected. But local officials say that Billionaire and a few other clubs ignored health regulations and became the petri dish of an island epidemic that infected soccer coaches, socialites and showgirls as it spread to the mainland.

Briatore’s club says that it did more than was asked of it and blamed a sensationalist news media for jumping to conclusions.

What is for sure is that the number of cases in Sardinia shot up from a few dozen before the summer to more than 1,000 in the space of a month and that the authorities have attributed more than 750 cases in Lazio, the region that includes Rome, to people returning from the island.

Roberto Ragnedda, the mayor of the Sardinian town of Arzachena, where many of the clubs are, said “10 days of madness” in August had caused “enormous damage to our image and to economy.”

“If the owners of the clubs were more careful these outbreaks could have been avoided,” he said, adding that, despite having gotten the outbreak under control, “we are seen as the source of everything wrong.”

For the authorities in Sardinia, the summer realized their worst nightmare.

In March, as infections and deaths exploded in the country’s north, the southern island’s governor, Christian Solinas, pleaded with the authorities in Rome to ban travel to Sardinia because Italians, especially those with a second home there, kept arriving. The government obliged.

As a result, Sardinia essentially dodged the COVID-19 disaster. In mid-April, when Italy reached more than 170,000 total cases for the virus, Sardinia had about 1,000.

Over the ensuing months, the virus all but vanished from the island, with zero new infections on May 14. Solinas vowed to keep it that way and at the time proposed requiring a “sanitary passport,” essentially a sticker certifying a negative coronavirus test result attached to a boat or plane ticket. The government called it unconstitutional, and ultimately, tourists only had to register via an online form on the region’s website.

Still, it seemed sufficient. Solinas, using powers given by the national government, decided to reopen outdoor nightclubs, as long as people danced at a distance. On Aug. 1, the island’s cases had ticked up only slightly, to 39.

But August has been Sardinia’s hot season since the 1960s, when the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of some 20 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide and an enthusiastic jet-setter, banded together with friends to buy miles of northeastern coastal land from herders and developed luxurious hotels, yacht and golf clubs and a village in medieval Moorish style along what became known as the Emerald Coast.

This year, it became Italy’s viral hot spot; “the Emerald COVID,” according to one headline in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The authorities are investigating partygoers for leaving false names and numbers at clubs to avoid contact tracing. The Italian civil protection agency complained about a 5 a.m. incident at the Just Cavalli nightclub of the zebra-print fashion house Roberto Cavalli, in which a man broke the nose of a volunteer for blocking his yellow Mercedes and “ruining his holiday.” Johnny Micalusi, a Rome-based celebrity chef known as the King of Fish and for schmoozing with his famous guests at their tables, was hospitalized with COVID-19 after working out of a Sardinian club.

But according to Ragnedda, the “most egregious” offender was Briatore, at whose club he once delivered drinks while working his way through law school.

Briatore declined a request for an interview through Patrizia Spinelli, a spokeswoman for his Billionaire Life brand. (“We didn’t just create a company, we built a lifestyle” is its motto.) She said the club was not responsible: “We are victims of the situation, too, and took all the precautions.”

In a social media post a few days before his coronavirus diagnosis, Briatore, 70, attacked a virologist for speaking badly about his club, saying that such scientists had “terrorized Italy.”

“Let us work,” Briatore said in another post on May 31. “The coronavirus provides insurance for this government, they are scaring everyone, and since everything has been going down since June, they start scaring people for September,” he added.

He also cited a comment made by his doctor, Alberto Zangrillo, who has said, “COVID clinically no longer exists; someone is terrorizing the country.” (Zangrillo later said that he had been speaking loosely and that he believes the virus is real.)

Zangrillo is also the personal doctor of Berlusconi, who is in a Milan hospital where his condition is said to be improving.

After making a political career out of victimization, Berlusconi this week seemed to have found a once-in-a-lifetime enemy: his coronavirus infection.

In a call Tuesday to members of his party, Forza Italia, he said that hoped to return to political battle and that, out of all the thousands of tests conducted at the Milan hospital since the start of the epidemic, “I have come out in the top five in terms of the strength of the virus.”

“I’m fighting to beat this infernal disease,” Berlusconi added, “It’s very ugly.”

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